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Three ways L.A. schools are trying to get ahead of chronic absenteeism

Rebecca Katz | August 2, 2022

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Faced with a crisis of chronically absent students last academic year, Los Angeles County education officials have spent the summer training workers to connect with families so children return to class next month.    

Teachers and social workers have been learning to spot mental health issues; and help parents find resources such as daycare so older siblings can return to school.  

Last year, the number of chronically absent students in the LA Unified School District was stunningly high. 

More than half of all L.A. Unified students — over 200,000 kids — were chronically absent last year. Chronically absent students miss more than 9% of the school year.

In the spring, L.A. Unified superintendent Alberto Carvalho pledged to personally follow 30 chronically absent students. Last month at a conference in Orlando, Florida, Carvalho said 10 of the 30 students were at home with no parents. “No adult was caring for them,” he said. 

Chronically absent students have had to stay home with their siblings, get jobs, or simply cannot find transportation to school. Now, Carvalho estimated that tens of thousands of students are not enrolled for school at all this year.

Carvalho told the Los Angeles Times that the chronic absenteeism rates were “exceedingly high.”

The numbers were even more striking for LA’s most vulnerable populations. Nearly 70% of homeless youth and nearly 60% of foster youth were chronically absent. With the 2022-23 school year quickly approaching, Marian Chiara, the L.A. county office of education attendance coordinator said educators are trying to get ahead of the problem. Los Angeles schools plan to combat chronic absenteeism in three major ways:

1. Educators Will Pay Special Attention to Student Mental Health 

“… After everything that went on with the pandemic, students are more vulnerable emotionally,” said Jennifer Kottke, coordinator of homeless education at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Kids who are struggling with mental health often have trouble consistently showing up to class, she said.

This summer hundreds of L.A. educators and administrators attended multiple workshops focusing on how to spot and treat students’ mental health needs who are at risk of becoming chronically absent. “Mental health is the first priority. We need to take care of the whole child if we want them to feel supported and successful at school. We can’t just look at the fact that they are chronically absent” Chiara said. “We have to understand why that is the case and work with them before it becomes a problem.” 

Workshops with educators focused on learning how to spot anxiety in students and incorporating “self care activities” into the classroom, such as meditation, journaling, and learning to set boundaries. School “should be a safe place for students who feel overwhelmed and unstable, not a place that brings them more stress.”

2. Administrators Will Focus on Forging Solid Relationships with Parents

Low income students had the largest increase of chronic absenteeism from the 2017-18 school year to the 2021-22 school year. Just 16.9% of low-income students were chronically absent in 2017-18, while 50% were chronically absent in 2021-22. 

Chiara said that many low-income parents had to take second jobs or have their kids work during the pandemic, which led to a serious increase in absenteeism for low-income students. 

“We need to focus on the parents and look at their experiences with the school and what’s going on for them at home … especially those who are struggling financially,” said Chiara, adding that many parents keep their children home because they are single parents and need someone to look after younger siblings or help around the house. 

“Our job is getting these parents the support they need,” she said. 

This academic year, L.A. County will provide social workers to low-income families to connect with them with free mental health support and child care, Chira said. 

3. Schools Will Shift From Punitive to Restorative Practices

Chiara said Los Angeles’ stance towards chronic absenteeism has shifted in recent years, focused more on solving families’ problems rather than punishing students for not showing up. 

“We are really trying to move away from punitive measures,” she said. Students who are punished for their absenteeism are less likely to want to come back to school.

Black students are punished and suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their white classmates around the country. In L.A., 56.8% of black students were chronically absent last year, compared to just 31.8% of white students.  

“We know that kids need to feel successful in order to want to come back to school. We want to create a supportive environment for students rather than punish them,” Chiara said. “Especially after the pandemic, a lot of students are going to have arrested development and behavior issues. Let’s understand that and meet these kids where they are at.”

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